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Automobilia: Gow Paint Your Flivver!

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You can’t beat the old Sears catalogs as reference material. Photos by the author.

One of the neatest references for everyday-material culture of the past is a Sears, Roebuck and Company Catalog. Sears in its catalog days was to many folks what Amazon is today. You perused pages and pages of everything from workwear to Sunday suits to firearms to tools to camping gear to auto parts, then you placed your order and the post office brought it to your home. If you want to know how something was done in the past, the Sears catalog from your era of choice probably has clues.

One of the things I was curious about was paint application for my 1923 Ford project, Tilly. Period photos indicate that after only a year or two on the streets, the factory Japan Black finish on most Tin Lizzies had decayed into something resembling a chalkboard. Duco-finished products from General Motors fared somewhat better, but worn-out paint was a problem that all auto owners eventually faced.

To see what the average do-it-yourselfer might have done back in the time period I’m emulating, I pulled my trusty Sears, Roebuck and Co. Catalog No. 149 (Fall and Winter 1924-1925) off the shelf and turned to the index, seeing “Automotive Enamel” listed on page 965. That revealed Sears carrying a whole line of Seroco Auto Paints to “Make your car look like new.” It also revealed two complete kits for refinishing an aged car: A “Special Painting Outfit for Ford Cars” and a “Complete Automobile Refinishing Outfit.”

The Ford kit came with one quart of black auto enamel, one quart of black auto top and seat dressing, a half pint of black engine and radiator enamel, a large package of steel wool, a pint of lamp and fender lacquer, a quart of “turpentine substitute” (mineral spirits), and two 2-inch varnish brushes. It sold for $3.35.

By contrast, the Complete Automobile Refinishing Outfit, on the same page, retailed for $4.95 and included a whole gallon of paint in the customer’s choice of Black, Dark Blue, Brewster Green, Dark Wine, Mouse Gray, or Auto Gray. It also contained a quart of turpentine substitute, a package of steel wool No. 1 (noted elsewhere as “Grade Fine, Equal to Nos. 0 and ½ Sandpaper”—approximately 60 to 80 grade), a package of steel wool No. 3 (“Grade Medium, Equal to No. 1½ Sandpaper”—approximately 40 grade), a quart of auto top dressing, a half pint of black engine and radiator enamel, a 2-inch flat varnish brush, a 3-inch flat varnish brush (“bristles secured in vulcanized rubber”), and a pound of cotton waste.

All those items are still an excellent bill of goods for someone with a lot of metal to repaint and not much money or equipment with which to do it. Paint sprayers attached to high-end vacuums came along in the 1930s, but in the ’20s, it seems the brush method (still used by many yacht builders in conjunction with a roller) was the preferred way to refinish a car at home.

The Sears How to Paint guide illustrated in the catalog does warn “you must not expect to obtain quite as good a finish as the original, which was built up by skilled workmen and hardened in special baking rooms, etc., but for all practical purposes you can refinish a car and do a good job.” In many ways that’s analogous to the current situation, where advancing technology has once again left the driveway painter with a minimum of options.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get some enamel, brushes, mineral spirits, and sandpaper. I’ll let you know how it works out!

The target date for period plausibility on my car is 1933-’34, and this 1933 ad proves the materials were still around.